Learning the Ins and Outs of Humanitarian Projects

Volunteers discuss ways to apply their technical skills to help people who need it the most

8 January 2009

“To foster technological innovation and excellence for the benefit of humanity” is IEEE’s core purpose. Look around, and you can see results in improved living standards, better medical devices, and more efficient practices that make technology more affordable. Not every advance comes from IEEE members, but with more than 375 000 members in 160 countries, much of it does.

But how can your skills benefit people in areas where technology is sparse and where the need is not for high technology but for basic needs like water, power, and communication? And do you have what it takes to apply your expertise in places where the language, climate, and culture are completely unfamiliar?

Last October, 115 IEEE members and others voluntarily gave up a Saturday to look into questions like these and learn how to apply their technical and other skills to humanitarian causes. The venue was the first IEEE Humanitarian Workshop, organized by the IEEE Graduates of the Last Decade group (GOLD) in cooperation with Engineers Without Borders–USA, a nonprofit humanitarian organization that partners with developing communities. The IEEE Foundation and the IEEE Boston Section sponsored the event. The day was given over to talks on the nuts and bolts of volunteering for humanitarian projects, brainstorming sessions on solving real-world problems faced in the field, and networking.

“GOLD sponsored this event to inform the younger members of humanitarian opportunities and inspire them to contribute to humanity and society, which many of them have a compelling desire to do,” says Robert Vice, chair of the Boston GOLD chapter.

The most challenging—and popular—talk was “Have You Got What It Takes in Rural Africa?” given by Gertjan van Stam, CEO of Linknet Zambia, a cooperative that builds communications links in rural Zambia. Van Stam is also vice chair of IEEE’s Zambia Section. He told the audience to “throw away preconceived ideas about the people of the areas you’re going to. They’re smart.” He added, “You might think that the people in rural areas don’t know what they’re doing, but they know very well, because they are surviving.” Van Stam noted that unlike many people in Western nations, Zambians rank character higher than credentials, responsibilities higher than rights, and the community higher than the individual. “It’s a relational culture,” he said.

If you want to help, van Stam said, “You have to invest in a relationship. A lot of good people come in and fail miserably because they do not take the time for that. It’s the local person who has to start something; if we start it, it’s going to fail.

“And you have to commit,” van Stam continued. “I see people coming in just for a year or two, and that’s fine, but a season is the time between a dream and a reality. To achieve that dream, it could take a year, or it could take a lifetime. I’ve been there for six years.”

Colleen O’Holleran, from EWB, also stressed commitment. “Are you going in for two weeks, to do something really great and then leave? Or are you going to partner with communities so you can put something in place that remains?” she asked. “It’s important to those volunteering to make sure that what you’re doing is truly sustainable”

The Real-World Project session, led by EWB’s Andrew Waddoups, was a brainstorming exercise to design and construct a solar-powered water system in the Ecuadorian Amazon. The exercise covered understanding what tasks need to be done and what resources are available, then designing, funding, and implementing it all—except, perhaps, for funding—in collaboration with the community involved.

More than 92 percent of the 43 participants surveyed said the workshop motivated them to get involved in humanitarian projects, and more than 80 percent said the workshop helped them understand how to apply their engineering skills.

“One of the challenges facing IEEE is the recruitment and retention of younger members,” Vice says. More than a third of those attending were not IEEE members, of whom half felt the workshop increased their desire to join and 25 percent thought it might.

Participants were also offered the chance to apply for one of 10 fellowships of US$ 3000 to fund their involvement in humanitarian projects.

For more information, visit the on the humanitarian workshop Web page.

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